by Toby Hanson, PGM, PGP
Grand Lodge of WA, IOOF
Sovereign Grand Musician
The origins of religious hostility toward fraternal orders go back to the Catholic Church in the 18th Century. At that time there was a new intellectual movement in Europe to incorporate reason and science into daily life—the Enlightenment. Many church leaders feared that secular reason would supplant faith entirely and take religion away from its
central role in day-to-day life. Specifically, the Pope feared that a population moving away from the Catholic Church’s intellectual hegemony would stray from the church. Similarly, monarchs of Europe feared the Enlightenment idea that sovereignty is manifest in the people and not divinely bestowed exclusively on monarchs. To some extent, those changes did happen, but mostly with the intellectual elites, many of whom were Freemasons. The Catholic Church acted swiftly to try and limit the influence of Masonry and its embodiment of Enlightenment ideas which they considered threatening. Specifically, in 1738, the Pope forbade practicing Catholics from being Masons. The French Revolution increased suspicion of Masonry as there were Freemasons involved with revolutionary actions and ideals.
Closer to home, although Masons were influential in the American Revolution and subsequent founding of the republic, there was a backlash against the Masons in the 1830s after the Morgan Affair, an event where someone was allegedly murdered by Freemasons for threatening to reveal their secrets. The Morgan Affair inspired a general suspicion of the Masons that eventually encompassed other secret societies. Because of the secrecy of Odd Fellowship, wild theories about idolatry, blasphemy, and other heretical and anti-religious practices propagated in the public imagination. There was even a book written in the late 19th Century that supposedly told about the sordid rites of Odd Fellowship
including “riding the goat” and worshiping skulls and other bizarre things. Despite almost nothing in the book being true, it sold well due to its sensationalism.
More recently, much of the religious resistance to Odd Fellowship, especially in evangelical circles, is because of our ecumenical nature. Odd Fellowship is not a religion. We don’t espouse or require any kind of specific religious belief. All that’s required to be an Odd Fellow is a belief in a Supreme Being of some sort. Many Evangelical Christian
groups are uncomfortable with the idea of belonging to an organization that isn’t expressly and overtly Christian. Their belief is that only groups which are expressly Christian are righteous and worthy of the attention of their believers. Any kind of ecumenical, non-sectarian, or secular group could too easily induce their faithful to stray from the true teachings of their faith.
By contrast, there is also a faction within Odd Fellowship that believes that any mention of a Supreme Being should be stricken from our rituals and observances as it acts as a barrier to joining for agnostics and atheists. Despite the fact that some religious groups consider us not religious enough, some Odd Fellows find us too religious because our
rituals and ceremonies acknowledge a common Creator and Preserver of the universe.
The two requirements for joining are that a person believe in a Supreme Being of some kind and that they are loyal to their country. The reason for requiring belief in a Supreme Being is because the philosophy of Odd Fellowship is based on recognizing the common
brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind under some sort of universal, omniscient creator. For that philosophy to work, one has to hold a belief in such a creator. The reason for requiring members to be loyal to their country is to prevent the use of lodge secrecy for seditious activity. We have no interest in advocating for any particular system of belief. We only ask that our members have a common belief in something greater than themselves and not plot the overthrow of their home country in a lodge meeting.
The end result of all of this is that Odd Fellowship is left in a kind of middle ground. For some, the secrecy of our operations is reason enough to raise suspicions of our activities. For others, our religious inclusion makes us unsuitable. For still others, there’s already too
much inclusion of religion within Odd Fellowship. We’re non-political and non-sectarian. You can support the political philosophy of your choice and worship in the way that suits your conscience and still be an Odd Fellow. Myself, a Lutheran, have sat in lodge with Pagans, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and many different varieties of Christians (even Roman
Catholics!). Joining them in lodge doesn’t mean we’re worshiping anything together; quite the contrary: it means we recognize that, despite our differences, we share the common and immutable trait of humanity with all its challenges. Our degrees (and especially those of our Encampment branch) teach us that the basics of humanity transcend the arbitrary divisions of society like race, class, religion, culture, and so on. When people of different faiths gather as Odd Fellows within the lodge, we share our humanity and our dedication to mutual aid.
In a lodge meeting there will be a few different observances of the Divine. All lodges have a Chaplain; the vast majority of which use the Bible as the representation of divine guidance. Any holy book can be used but, since the overwhelming majority of our membership is Christian, the Bible is pretty much always the default. All lodge meetings include a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer along with a specific opening prayer. As we’re non-sectarian, those prayers aren’t supposed to reference Jesus, but, again, since our membership is profoundly Christian, most Chaplains lapse into habit and include a reference to Jesus at the end. Most ceremonies and public events include a blessing
and/or benediction of some kind and the same thing tends to happen with “In Jesus’ name” or something similar appended at the end.
Despite those observances of a higher power in our ritual and ceremonies, we’re not worshiping anything. We don’t espouse any particular system of faith. We’re not intent on fomenting revolution or eliminating religious hegemony. We’re not promoting a particular religion or system of belief. All we’re doing is bringing people together to treat each other with kindness and respect and reminding them of their shared obligation to their fellow humans. Some look at what we do and believe it’s too religious, others not religious enough, and still others see it as exclusionary. The truth lies somewhere between those positions and the best part is that you get to make that determination for yourself.
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